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The NBB's printing workshop, before 1950 and in 2006

The NBB s printing workshop, before 1950 and in 2006

The word “paper” derives from papyrus, an aquatic plant and the source of the writing material with the same name. Paper itself is a Chinese invention and, without any doubt, an improvement compared to the former techniques. The Arabs later on spread this invention through the Islamic world, amongst others in Muslim Spain (eighth-eleventh centuries). From there on, paper conquered the whole Europe.

Jagged rags at the Papeterie De Meurs, nineteenth century

Jagged rags at the Papeterie De Meurs, nineteenth century

Different raw materials such as the bark of lime or mulberry trees, bamboo, flax and rags were used to produce the first Chinese paper. In Europe, paper was mostly made of flax and hemp (rag paper). In the nineteenth century the National Bank of Belgium used to buy its paper from two important paper mills, the Papeterie De Meurs (Belgium) and the Papeterie du Marais (France). Paper was still handmade and the slurry was obtained by braking or scutching rags and old clothes. To produce a homogeneous and solid paper, flax or hemp was added and extra suppleness was gained by the addition of cotton. This technique was used by the Papeterie De Meurs. From 1894 to 1899, ramie or China grass became the basic raw material for the production of Belgian banknote paper. Thanks to a higher degree of opacity, forged notes are easier detectable. However ramie paper had a shorter life span and, above all, it was more expensive. From the outset of the twentieth century, due to the high production costs of paper, Belgium opts for mechanically produced paper. The higher the quality, the longer the life span and the better the integrated security features. The Bank has chosen for another French supplier, the Papeterie d’Arches and halfway along the century, has turned to a British paper mill. Today paper mills no longer use rags, but undressed cotton fibres. The production is a continuous process, from the paper production itself to the reeling of the sheet. The paper used to print the euro notes is produced by the Fábrica Nacional de Moneda y Timbre in Burgos (Spain).

1000 francs, 1851 type (temporary); issued by the NBB, drawn and engraved by Leopold Wiener

1000 francs, 1851 type (temporary); issued by the NBB, drawn and engraved by Leopold Wiener

Being the inventors of paper, the Chinese were also the first to introduce it as a means of payment. During the Ming Dynasty, in the fourteenth century, paper notes were put into circulation. Since metal was scarce, the emperor decided to issue notes with a use value of several coins. The note in the museum for example has a value of a 1 000 coins. In Europe, it was the money changer who was responsible for the introduction of paper money. In the thirteenth century, in Italy, the money changer became more and more important. At his table or banco, he offered several services to the public: he was exchanging coins (in the Middle Ages each region was minting its own coins), he was accepting deposits and granting loans. Actually, he was doing the same thing as bankers today: offering the possibility to save and to borrow. To keep tracks of all those transactions, the money changer had to keep books and his depositors received a certificate mentioning the exact value of their deposit. It is not before the second half of the seventeenth century (1661) that the first banknote or credit note has been put into circulation by the Swedish Stockholms Banco. It has also marked an important step in monetary history: the introduction of fiduciary money. The term is derived from the Latin word fiducia meaning “trust”. In contrast with the intrinsic value of coins depending on their alloy and weight, the value of a note depends on the trust it enjoys. Its value is simply written or printed on the note itself. It is not before the end of the nineteenth century – beginning of the twentieth, that the banknote has become popular with the public at large. In 1851, the National Bank of Belgium issued its first serie whose values were ranging from 20 francs to 1000 francs. Due to a very high purchasing power and a low demand, these notes were printed in small amounts.

The euro notes

The euro notes

The introduction of the single currency is the latest step in European monetary history. The euro has officially been introduced in 1999, although only as bank money. As for the notes and coins, they have been issued from 1st January 2002 on. The notes paper, made of cotton, has to comply with well-defined specifications. It already contains a number of security elements: microfibers that react to UV-light, a watermark and a security thread. When held up against the light, the watermark reveals the main motif of the banknote and its value. On the security thread, made of metal or plastic, the value as well as the word “euro” are legible. Although coins and banknotes are still in favor when it comes to small and daily payments, the bulk of the money supply consists in bank money. Transfers, cards and standing orders are used to an ever larger extent to make our payments.



Catherine Dauvister
Museum guide


  • European Central Bank, How the euro became our money, Frankfurt, 2007.
  • Brion R. & Moreau J.L., Le billet dans tous ses États. Du papier-monnaie à l’euro, Bruxelles, Fonds Mercator, 2001.
  • Danneel M., “Het biljettenpapier van de Nationale Bank van België (1850-1940)”, in Ons Heem, jg.53, 1999, nr.1 Papiergeschiedenis, p. 37-47.
  • Monestrier M., L’art du papier monnaie, Paris, éd. du Pont Neuf, 1982.
  • Rudel J. (dir.), Les techniques de l’art, Paris, Flammarion, coll. Tout l’art. Encyclopédie, 2003.

One Comment

  1. Posted Wednesday April 14th, 2010 at 09:24 PM | Permalink

    Superb Article.

    I hope you don’t mind me being a pedant! Although my Latin is rusty, I would have translated “fiducia” as “assurance”, with “fides” meaning “trust” in most contexts. Of course I could be totally wrong.

    Again, this doesn’t take away from a very informative and well written article.


    Thank you for your comment on our blog and your interest in our Museum. Indeed, the Latin word fiducia can mean either assurance or confidence as well as trust. It is a bit like confiance in French! According to the Collins Latin-English dictionary, fiducia = assurance, confidence; (law) trust, security.